North Korea has “responded” to efforts by the United Nations Command to discuss American soldier Travis King, who ran across the border into North Korea last month and is believed to be detained by Pyongyang, the Command said on Thursday.
The US-led multinational force, which oversees the Korean War truce, said in a statement that Pyongyang’s military “has responded to the United Nations Command with regards to Private King”.
“In order not to interfere with our efforts to get him home, we will not go into details at this time,” it added.
The latest announcement comes more than a week after the UN Command said it had started a conversation with the North over the soldier.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed contact had been made with North Koreans, adding he still had no idea where King was or in what condition.
“We’re actually trying to learn more about his whereabouts and his well-being, and we simply don’t have that information,” Blinken told US television channel ABC.
“Yesterday, finally, the North Koreans acknowledged that they understand we’re asking these questions. They haven’t given us responses,” he added.
After a drunken pub fight, an incident with police and a stay in South Korean jail, Private Second Class King was being taken to the airport last month to fly back to Texas.
But instead of travelling to Fort Bliss for disciplinary hearings, King snuck away, joined a Demilitarised Zone sightseeing trip and slipped over the border.
The two Koreas remain technically at war because the 1950-53 conflict ended in an armistice, not a treaty, and most of the border between them is heavily fortified.
But at the JSA, the frontier is marked only by a low concrete divider and is relatively easy to cross, despite the presence of soldiers on both sides.
Pyongyang has a long history of detaining Americans and using them as bargaining chips in bilateral negotiations.
The latest incident comes as relations between the two Koreas are at one of their lowest points ever, with diplomacy stalled and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un calling for increased weapons development, including of tactical nuclear warheads.
But Thursday’s development “reads as a sign of North’s willingness to negotiate”, Vladimir Tikhonov, professor of Korean studies at the University of Oslo, told AFP.
“They basically want some progress towards normalisation with the US, in order to offset the disproportionally high dependency on the Chinese economy.
“So, a goodwill gesture may happen — although it is far from sure for now.”
Beijing is North Korea’s most important ally and economic benefactor.
Washington continues to enforce stringent sanctions against North Korea as a means of addressing the ongoing concerns surrounding their nuclear weapons programme.
Pyongyang last week held a dramatic military parade featuring its new attack drones and nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles, with leader Kim flanked by visiting Russian and Chinese officials.